Water district group facing name change

Even before it has been officially established, the Pennichuck Regional Water District may have to change its name.

Eugene Van Loan, a lawyer for the committee working to draft a charter for the district, told the panel at a meeting Thursday night that Pennichuck is a registered trade name controlled by Pennichuck Corp.

Given the political discord surrounding Nashua’s effort to acquire the local water utility, Van Loan said Pennichuck officials “could have an issue with us using their registered trade name.”

“We might have a difficult time registering it because of the political climate, and Pennichuck might take some action to take the name away,” Van Loan told the committee.

Donald Correll, Pennichuck’s president and chief executive officer, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

At a Jan. 8 meeting of the panel, there was some discussion about changing the name, but members voted to keep it, saying the name has historical significance in the region.

Pennichuck was the name of a Native American tribe that inhabited the region centuries ago, members said, and Pennichuck Brook is a major component of the city’s water supply.

On Thursday night, Van Loan suggested changing the name to Southern New Hampshire Water changing the name to Southern New Hampshire Water District, but members weren’t particularly enthused by that idea because there was previously a water utility operating under the name of Southern New Hampshire Water Co.

That company, a subsidiary of Consumers Water Co., did not have a good record of customer service, and the name might resurrect bad memories for some residents, said Karen White of Bedford, a researcher for the committee.

Ultimately, Hudson bought part of the company to serve as its local water utility. Pennichuck bought the rest of the company’s assets. After some discussion, the committee decided to discuss the potential name change again when the panel meets in public Feb. 12.

The committee is expected to vote on the charter that night. After that, it will be up to the governing bodies of each community involved to approve or reject the document.

The committee has been working on a proposed charter for a water district for more than a year and a half. The document is 24 pages long and contains 24 articles outlining how the district would be run.

The district would include Nashua and 15 area towns. Under the proposed charter, each community would have one vote on the district’s board of directors. But because more than 70 percent of Pennichuck’s water connections are in Nashua, the city’s vote would carry more weight on issues such as water rates and capital improvements. Votes on those issues would be done under a system of “voting by customer.”

The committee, chaired by Marilyn Peterman of Amherst, is in the process of reviewing changes to the charter recommended by residents during previous public hearings. Thus far, the panel has completed work on 15 of the document’s 24 articles.

On Thursday, the committee tightened language in an article that establishes an office of customer affairs to handle complaints about bills and other grievances. The person who runs that office has to be as independent as possible of the district’s management, members said. For that reason, the committee opted to change language that would have given the district management, known as the operations group, a major role in appointing the person who heads the office. The new language states that only a portion of the operations group would be involved in choosing the customer affairs official, who would still answer to the board of directors but would be expected to act impartially in handling complaints.

Despite such revisions, though, much of the proposed charter has remained unchanged from when it was first presented to residents at a public hearing in Nashua early last month. For instance, the panel has left an article on conflicts of interest intact, despite the urging of local activists Barbara Pressly and Allan Fuller, and committee member George Woodbury of Hollis, to make the language more explicit.

Woodbury said the wording of the provision should be such that district officials would avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The committee said it could revisit that article later. After 45 minutes of discussion, the committee on Thursday voted not to substantially change Article 7, which deals with the chief executive officer and the operations group. At issue was a sentence that states, “The CEO shall have the authority, without further board approval, to enter into such contracts that are specifically authorized in the capital improvements plan or the (water) resource plan.

Member Ken Massey of Hudson wanted to set a dollar limit, perhaps $500,000, on the cost of contracts the CEO could approve without the endorsement of the directors. But the committee decided the limitation could tie the hands of the CEO in the event of an emergency. According to Peterman, the committee will meet in nonpublic session next week to receive an update from Nashua officials on negotiations with Pennichuck. The company’s board of directors recently rejected a $121 million offer.